Diets high in fat are associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, although the molecular mechanism is still unknown. We have previously reported that arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid common in the Western diet, stimulates proliferation of prostate cancer cells through production of the 5-lipoxygenase metabolite, 5-HETE (5-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid). We now show that 5-HETE is also a potent survival factor for human prostate cancer cells. These cells constitutively produce 5-HETE in serum-free medium with no added stimulus. Exogenous arachidonate markedly increases the production of 5-HETE. Inhibition of 5-lipoxygenase by MK886 completely blocks 5-HETE production and induces massive apoptosis in both hormone-responsive (LNCaP) and -nonresponsive (PC3) human prostate cancer cells. This cell death is very rapid: cells treated with MK886 showed mitochondrial permeability transition between 30 and 60 min, externalization of phosphatidylserine within 2 hr, and degradation of DNA to nucleosomal subunits beginning within 2-4 hr posttreatment. Cell death was effectively blocked by the thiol antioxidant, N-acetyl-L-cysteine, but not by androgen, a powerful survival factor for prostate cancer cells. Apoptosis was specific for 5-lipoxygenase-programmed cell death was not observed with inhibitors of 12-lipoxygenase, cyclooxygenase, or cytochrome P450 pathways of arachidonic acid metabolism. Exogenous 5-HETE protects these cells from apoptosis induced by 5-lipoxygenase inhibitors, confirming a critical role of 5-lipoxygenase activity in the survival of these cells. These findings provide a possible molecular mechanism by which dietary fat may influence the progression of prostate cancer.